The comment from Robert on Innovation Starvation reminded me of something I had read a long time ago by the “Purposeful Systems” guru Russell Ackoff regarding managers’ constant belief that they operate with a lack of information, whereas they are actually lacking only relevant information. As organisations and management systems have developed we are able to acquire data in massively increased amounts, but have not developed an effective discrimination mechanism to filter it. In Robert’s comment he refers to the Edwardian Butler who provided this discrimination in physical form. Visitors and telephone callers were filtered in an informed and courteous manner, the household books and staff were managed with only exceptions reported. Perfect.

There is a hierarchy which leads from data to knowledge:-

1. Data, the raw numbers.

2. Information, data held with structure.

3. Knowledge, information held with understanding.

Only when our 21st century “butlers” (Information systems, or if we are important enough, support staff ) have traversed this hierarchy should the results be passed to us. Unfortunately modern organisations tend to encourage staff to respond to requests for information with sheer tonnage of data as there are no other metrics by which their effort can be judged. This is compounded by managers who distrust much corporate data and like to hoard their own for private analysis.

You can read about Ackoff’s f-laws (Flaws geddit) here :- http://www.f-laws.com/pdf/A_Little_Book_of_F-LawsE.pdf

Some more of his most easily digestible quotes are:-

  • “See, doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is that the righter you do the wrong thing, the wronger you become. If you’re doing the wrong thing and you make a mistake and correct it you become wronger. So it’s better to do the right thing wrong, than the wrong thing right. So we’re now questioning, that it turns out every major social problem today is trying to do the wrong thing righter. So instead of looking at the efficiency with which we are perusing our objectives, we’re beginning to re-examine the objectives.”
  • About the education system. “Our system is not about learning, […] its about teaching. We don’t recognize that teaching is a major obstruction to learning.”; “Who in the classroom learns the most…. the teacher. See the classroom is upside down.”
  • “You never learn by doing something right, because your already doing it right. You only learn by mistakes.”

I took these from the blog at cuddletech.com and you could do worse than pay it a visit if you are interested in systems thinking.


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